LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Stopwatch in hand, Scotty Schulhofer makes the long trek from the clockers' stand to his temporary headquarters in the Churchill Downs barn area. The barn is located at the top of the mile chute in the farthest reach on the backstretch.
A golf cart rolls past, and the driver tells Schulhofer, "You need one of these."
"No, no," said Schulhofer, 64. "Got to get my exercise. When you get my age, you've got to do something."
For Schulhofer, the Kentucky Derby trail has been perhaps the most grueling exercise of his distinguished career. Whether Fly So Free wins or loses Saturday, Schulhofer said, "We'll live to fight another day."
Earlier in his career, it might have been more fun and exciting to have the Derby favorite. "Maybe it's old age, but it's the way I look at things now," he said with a laugh. "I wouldn't say this is the most important race of my career."
There have been many important races for Schulhofer. He has won two Breeders' Cup races, a Washington International, two Florida Derbys. He has run horses in all the Triple Crown races. For most of his life, he has watched horses, talked horses, eaten and slept horses, from the days when his father owned a riding academy to a steeplechase riding career to a 29-year training career.
But this winter and spring have been different. Under the watchful eye of the racing world, he has brought Fly So Free from 2-year-old champion to Derby favorite. That is a task in itself -- just five 2-year-old champions have run in the Derby in the last 11 years; three have been favored, and none has won -- but what makes it hardest is the way the questions have persisted about Fly So Free.
"I haven't even asked him whether he knows he was 2-year-old champion," Schulhofer said slyly to a group of reporters. Earlier, in a lonelier setting, he asked, "What the hell does a horse know about that stuff?"
Fly So Free won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last fall, clinching a third Eclipse Award for his trainer. Schulhofer then plotted a meticulous campaign in Florida, and the colt won all three starts there. Then it was on to Kentucky, where he would run in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, then the Derby.
The colt lost the Blue Grass to Strike the Gold by three lengths. Better to have gotten the loss out of the way, Schulhofer reasoned, and besides, it may have done him some good. "He may have gotten too complacent winning all those races in Florida," he said. "He needed a good challenge."
Nick Zito, who trains Strike the Gold, was among Fly So Free's doubters who saw the loss in another light. The loss confirmed what they had maintained all spring: It was only a matter of time before his rivals would mature, then catch him and pass him.
One colt who threatens to do just that is Hansel. Fly So Free drubbed him twice, in the Fountain of Youth Stakes and the Florida Derby. But in two subsequent races, away from Fly So Free, Hansel won like a champion.
Schulhofer believes Hansel's victories in the Jim Beam and Lexington Stakes were more a result of weak competition than a startling improvement. Of the other three in the Big Four, he thinks Hansel is the least of his worries. In the Derby, after Fly So Free, he said, "Best Pal, then Strike the Gold, then Hansel. That's the way I'd play it.
"Everybody who got away from Fly So Free has run well," he added.
All week, people have been impressed with the way Fly So Free has trained and schooled. His final workout came yesterday, and he went four furlongs in 46 3/5 seconds. "He came back good, and it doesn't look like it took anything out of him," Schulhofer said.
Take a look at the past performances for the Time For A Change (by Damascus) colt. He has a 7-for-10 record, $1.38 million in earnings and the tactical speed that's suited to this Derby. Add it up, and he's the Big One in the Big Four, the one nobody fails to mention when "Who's the one to beat?" is asked.
Schulhofer doesn't mind the role he and his colt have been forced to play. He doesn't mind the waves of reporters and cameras. He doesn't mind waiting two more days to see whether Fly So Free can prove himself superior one more time.
"Everything's coming up roses," he said. And even after the 117th Derby, there will be more important races for Scotty Schulhofer. He just wouldn't mind the roses coming to him.
How top 2-year-olds have fared
The performance of previous year's 2-year-old champions in the Kentucky Derby:
Year,. . Horse . . .... . .. ..... Finish
1979,. .. Spectacular Bid. . . . . . 1st*
1980,. . . Rockhill Native. . . . . 5th*
1981,. . . Lord Avie. . . . . Did not run
1982,. . . Deputy Minister .. Did not run
1983,. . . Roving Boy. . . .. Did not run
1984,. . . Devil's Bag. . . . Did not run
1985,. . . Chief's Crown. .. .. . .. 3rd*
1986,. . . Tasso. . . . . . . Did not run
1987,. . . Capote. . . . . . .. ... 16th
1988,. . . Forty Niner. . . . . . ... 2nd
1989,. . . Easy Goer. . . . . . .2nd (e)*
1990,. . . Rhythm. . .. . . . Did not run
1991,. . . Fly So Free
* -- betting favorite
(e) -- party of stable coupling